By George Harvey
Stowe, Vermont has long been famous as a destination for skiers and tourists. In the last few years, its fame has grown because it is now also the home of the Alchemist Brewery. This is not an exaggeration. The Alchemist’s Heady Topper, a beer of a type called a “double IPA,” is rated at BeerAdvocate as one of the ten best beers in the world (bit.ly/top-beers), but there is more to the Alchemist’s story than a famous beer.
Jen and John Kimmich opened The Alchemist as a 60-seat brew pub in 2003 in Waterbury, Vermont, and it quickly gained a devoted following. They opened their first production brewery, also in Waterbury, in 2011.
Just a day before the first product came off the production line, Hurricane Irene struck, destroying the brew pub. Fortunately, the brewery was still operational. However, a downside of their popularity was difficulty with heavy traffic and finding places for all their visitors to park, so they again had to close their tasting room and retail shop in 2013. They decided to open a second brewery in Stowe and move all retail sales to that site.
Unlike the older brewery, the new building was built specifically to be a brewery with direct sales. With it came an opportunity to work sustainably. Its owners have taken an impressively proactive approach to dealing with ecological impacts of their business, seeming to consider every detail of its activities, always seeking to be as kind to the environment as possible.
Clearly, any brewery will use large amounts of water. It is not just that water is an important part of the final product. A brewery’s waste water can have a significant environmental impact. When Jen Kimmich talks about The Alchemist’s environmental work, much of the discussion revolves around water treatment. The days when brewers can simply dump waste water down a drain thoughtlessly are past, in fact, because it can overwhelm a local waste treatment plant. “We have waste water systems that are already overworked and not handling the material well,” she said. “Every town wants a brewery or cheese maker. People think about them as a nice organic processes. They are, but they can also be polluters. Towns need to address the waste problem.”
After a process called “mashing,” The Alchemist sends its waste grain to local farms to be used as feed. Then, as much of the remaining waste as possible, including tank wash, yeast slurry and spent hops, are put into containers that are picked up by Grow Compost, so its nutritional value is not lost. Much of the waste goes to a biodigester at Vermont Technical College.
The Stowe brewery is somewhat more sophisticated in its ability to handle waste than the one in Waterbury. It has a settling tank and a moving-bed biofilm reactor, made by World Water Works. These reduce the biological oxygen demand of the water to about the level of three households. The Alchemist has spent about $1 million on waste water treatment.
Waste water is not the only environmental issue. The Alchemist is very interested in pursuing net- metered solar power. It gets power for the Waterbury brewery from a net-metering investment with a solar farm in Bethel, Vermont. The owners are also working on getting solar for their new Stowe site. “This is a priority and will happen as soon as possible.” said owner Jen Kimmich. The Stowe facility makes extensive use of natural light and highly efficient lighting. It also has heat pumps. Fresh air is provided by heat exchange equipment engineered by Trane. The next big project is to make the Waterbury facility more efficient, including improvements like those at Stowe.
Kimmich said, “We are taking all sorts of small steps to reduce our environmental impact.” The brewery only distributes within a 25-mile radius to keep its carbon footprint as small as possible. It produces very little trash, typically one small tote for each facility. Jen and John Kimmich are looking into aquaponics as an avenue to recapturing carbon dioxide produced in the brewing process. They are considering a greenhouse to raise fish and vegetables.
She mentioned new legislation coming up that we should be aware of. The time is coming when it will no longer be legal to throw out food scraps. Speaking of this, she said, “The question is, where are all these scraps going to go? We cannot require people to pull out all the yeast or food scraps or lawn clippings without having any place to put them. We need more digesters. At one time, Vermont Technical College needed waste to keep the digester going. Now they have more sources than they can use.”
Jen Kimmich said, “There is so much great technology out there. I think our goal is to make technology like this more accessible, even if it is means bringing other producers in and showing them what is there. We want to find solutions for everyone. We look at ways to help others take action. We were not required to do this. It is something we decided to do.”
The Alchemist Brewery’s website is alchemistbeer.com.